Stone matters: the architecture of Elias and Yousef Anastas

Stone matters to Elias and Yousef Anastas, the entrepreneurial brothers behind the Paris and Bethlehem-based architectural studio AAU Anastas.

AAU ANASTAS, Stone matters, Jericho, 2017

As architects living and working in the occupied territories of the West Bank, stone forms the bedrock of the historic urban fabric that surrounds them, informing their sense of place and identity as Palestinians.

But thanks to an archaic building regulation, a curious hangover from the Ottoman Empire, stone is more than a matter of heritage. It is also their single greatest material constraint. 

“The ruling states that at least 70 per cent of the envelope of a building should be covered in stone,” explains Yousef Anastas, who is currently completing a PhD in advanced stone construction techniques.

“Traditionally it was used as a structural material, but now it is increasingly being used as cladding for concrete structures.” For the brothers, who are on a mission, they say, to “desacrilise” stone and to reintroduce it into contemporary architecture as a structural system, the current pattern of Palestinian urbanism is proof positive of their belief of intimate connection between the design of the smallest architectural elements and urban morphology. 

“Because we are forced to use stone in an urban context, you end up with structures that are all the same size because the [stone] factories are all set up the same way and our research began as a reaction to this uniformity,” Yousef says. For Elias Anastas, their experiments are also a reaction to the rapidity in the development of the Palestinian city.

“What’s happening at the moment isn’t linked to architecture, it’s automatically linked to the consumption of land because the moment you build, it protects the land in some way from being expropriated,” he explains. “So the question of how you build is no longer on the agenda. The question is how you do it as quickly as possible, but as architects we want to generate cities that are more adapted to ways of living.”

With this aim in mind, the brothers have embarked on a series of experiments since 2012, when they established AAU Anastas’s second studio in Paris. The first, in Bethlehem, had been established by their architect parents in 1979. The results have been a series of award-winning civic buildings, such as their courthouse in Toulkarem, a series of gravity-defying stone structures and a line of contemporary artisan-made furniture that reflect the brother’s commitment to working at different scales while questioning the assumptions that inform contemporary architectural practice.

A case in point is the brother’s most recent research project, a self-supporting stone vault, Analogy, which was exhibited as part of Jerusalem Show IX at the biennial Qalandiya International festival in October. Inspired by a traditional type of rectangular stone vault – aqd takaneh – commonly employed in Palestinian domestic architecture at least since the thirteenth-century, Analogy, combines historic architectural forms, traditional craftsmanship and materials with innovative design and construction techniques. 

The brothers describe the result as the first element in what might be described as a 21st century pattern book.

“The idea is to break down architectural elements to their simplest forms in order to democratise the use of stone as a structural material,” insists Elias Anastas.

“And our aim is to generate a lexicon of the most basic architectural elements – a lintel, a column, a vault – that can be generated through stereotomy into forms that are economically accessible.” 

A form of applied geometry that was once the exclusive domain of the builder-architect and master mason, stereotomy involves the precise mathematical design, cutting and assembly of individual stone units and is the technique the brothers have chosen to deliver their structural revolution.

In Analogy stereotomy has allowed the brothers to create a shallow, 1500kg vault with a depth of just eight centimetres defined by shifting sinusoid-shaped profiles forming doubly-curved, ruled surfaces that afford the stones the necessary degree of structural reciprocity. 

The result is a historically-informed structure that is as contextual as it is unprecedented. In September 2018 the brothers used similar techniques to construct The Flat Vault, a ceiling composed of 169 interlocking stone voussoirs at the St Mary of the Resurrection Abbey. An important site for Christian pilgrims, the 12th century Benedictine monastery is situated high in the Judean Hills at the heart of the village of Abu Ghosh, on one of three possible sites for the Biblical town of Emmaus.

Developed by AAU Anastas’s research arm, Scales, in collaboration with the Geometry, Structure and Architecture Lab at the École Nationale Supérieure d'architecture Paris-Malaquais, The Flat Vault forms the roof of the monastery’s shop. Considered from the outset as a structural stone building whose integrity relies on massive stone columns and delicate stereotomy, the roof is effectively formed of woven limestone, the first reinforced flat stone vault of its type executed on such a scale.

Elias Anastas admits that the brother’s desire to transform their homeland through stereotomy may sound “a bit insane”, but both are convinced that the development of a series of pre-defined, economically viable architectural elements offers the potential to transform the Palestinian city vault by vault, lintel by lintel. “The other idea is to squeeze the whole specification and documentation of a building, and by using very classical construction techniques and by narrowing down the requirements, to make it accessible to any contractor rather than being exclusive,” says Elias Anastas.

By working with local artisans in ways that not only innovate but help to revive skills and support the local economy, AAU Anastas are proposing a model of building that appears to have more in common with medieval construction than with contemporary development practices. If they succeed, the Anastas brothers will have achieved something more than an architectural innovation, they will have succeeded in reestablishing Jerusalem as a global crucible for aesthetic and intellectual inspiration, a position it last occupied at the turn of the first millennium. 

“Our most recent project is called Analogy, because it is about prototypical elements of architecture that are analogous to the elements that are already found in the City, not just in Palestine, but in the whole of stereotomy,” Elias Anastas explains.

“And as a city of influences and civilisations, Jerusalem, and Palestine more widely is both a place of specific architecture and one that shares much with other parts of the world.”

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